and according to legend was built upon a lake, as mandated by the king based on where his ring landed when he threw it into the air. Interestingly, the Temple was constructed in honor of his Nepali wife, Bhrikuti; however, it happens to house the coveted statue of the present Buddha, Shakyamuni, which was the dowry from his Chinese wife, Wencheng. We stood by as hordes of Pilgrims excitedly rushed the statue (which is the most sacred statue in Tibet) with offerings such as butter, money, medicinal insects, and gold from the more wealthy nomads, or crop yields of barley, wheat and mustard seed from the poorer farmers. In fact, we watched as the monks used the gifts to paint a fresh coat of pure gold on the statue's face and replenish the endless rows of butter lamps. During our exploration of the holy sight, we were drawn to the distant sounds of dull banging and synchronized chants. We reached the source to find a group of 'boys versus girls’ singing, stomping and banging long mallets onto wet stone and mustard seed which would become a fresh layer of the Temple’s roof.
Upon exiting the temple, we joined into Barkhor (or "middle circle"), a pilgrim circuit around Jokhang were the masses – almost entranced – circle round and round for hours both praying and browsing the rows of shops. Even as a newcomer it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the procession and fall into lock step. For anyone who has visited Lhasa since the 2008 revolution, only you will take note of the marked absence of police and soldiers in our pictures of the Barkhor area, where the riots started, despite the fact that their presence is indeed quite prominent (though most of them are just young boys). This is because tourists are forbidden from photographing them.
After a day of rest, Philip was almost back to full strength on Friday, October 15th and ready to take on the long climb through Potala Palace. The original Palace, the highest section painted in red, was built in the 7th century and now houses religious objects, most notably the stunning golden tombs of the prior Dalai Lamas. The white section was built in the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama as living quarters for future Dalai Lamas. Near the onset of construction, the Dalai Lama passed away, but in order to avoid halting the grand vision, his closest minister announced that the leader had gone into meditation and could not receive visitors. Thus, for twelve years the Dalai Lama’s death remained a secret until the construction was complete. Another fun fact we learned is that because the passing of the Dalai Lama remained secret, the naming of his successor was delayed until the reincarnate was already 14 years old (Lamas are typically named around age 2), resulting in stories that the 6th Dalai Lama was somewhat of a ‘playboy.’
Following a quick Tibetan/Indian-style lunch at the Lonely Planet’s ‘pick,’ Snowland Restaurant, we joined Jumchok and Bemba for the quick ride to Sera Monastery (side note: Bemba managed to replace two, but not all of the tires – good thing we cancelled the big road trip!). Sera is one of the three great monasteries of central Tibet (along with Ganden and Deprung) built by a disciple of the master Tsong Kapa, founder of the yellow hat sect. Inside the monastery is a prominent printing press, where prayer books and religious texts are produced by hand for distribution throughout the country. Also, as the yellow hat sect places knowledge at the center of advancement and naming of monastery leaders (abbots), from 3 to 5pm each weekday the monks gather in the courtyard for ‘debates’ in preparation for abbot examinations. The masses of tourists staring made it feel a tad voyeuristic; so we did not stay too long.
Saturday, our last full day in Tibet, we started early for the drive to Ganden Monastery about 40km from Lhasa. Jumchok explained that as a result of an accident several years earlier, where a bus of Chinese tourists overturned in the cliff-lined road to Ganden, a “strict” speed limit was imposed. As we prodded for more details, we began to think that this characterization was a bit curious as enforcement is carried out by a series of checkpoints where the police provide drivers with a timecard, which is checked at the next point. In order to avoid arriving ‘too early’ at the next checkpoint and fined for speeding, drivers instead drive quickly up until a few hundred meters before the next check then take a smoke, toilet or drink break. Doesn’t sound so “strict” to us. As we approached the final ascent to Ganden, we came to understand the risks of speeding and the likelihood of an overturned bus. The road became winding and steep, but provided for the most spectacular portrait of a secluded, mountain-hugging monastery, which we had imagined but not yet witnessed during the trip thus far. It was lovely, dotted with snow and half-covered with clouds. We’re not sure if it’s the longer drive or morning rain, but it was significantly less crowded than some other sights, which added to our enjoyment. Inside we found much of the same elements from prior sights – ornamented statues, elaborate stupas and tombs, scattered offerings from the devout. Perhaps what stood apart in this monastery was the extended piles of new statues which were collected by the wealthy monastery, preparing to become blessed (by filling them with prayer books and other religious objects as well as the monks showering them with Buddhist chants) for later delivery to more remote monasteries in the country. The drive away from the monastery was as lovely as the arrival, and Philip took great opportunity of the emerging sun to snap some new shots with more vivid color.
After a very quick lunch, we added an afternoon visit to Norbulingka, the former Summer Place of the Dalai Lama. Actually, one could say that it is still the summer home of the spiritual leader, but I say former because it has been left unused since the 14th Dalai Lama fled for exile in India in 1959. Over 50 years without use, the special palace of the 14th Dalai Lama is still touted for being ‘so modern’ as it includes a western-style sitting toilet (verses the ‘squatting-style’ still most prevalent throughout the country), a garage of buggies, and numerous gifts from other world leaders (including Nehru and Hitler).
The morning of Sunday, October 17th we had just enough time for one more sight visit and short stroll around town. Unfortunately, Philip’s stomach had began acting up (luckily only lasting one morning) so he slept in a bit longer while I took a quick trip with Jumchok to the most famous nunnery in Tibet, Lhasa Tsamkhung. It was a cool experience to witness the nuns’ morning chants and preparations for the evening’s feast of round noodles and vegetables.
On our drive to the airport, a trip of about 1 hour and change, we squeezed in one last visit to a painted stone carving of the present Buddha Shakyamuni etched into the mountain at the side of the road. It was large, colorful and emitted oodles of devotion – a description that could sum up all of the sights we’d experienced over the course of our trip in Tibet. We were leaving as very satisfied visitors to this mysterious land. However, it is clear to the eye that the forces of modernization brought by years of Chinese occupation and mass tourism are slowly but surely overwhelming local culture and traditions with signs of materialism even in monastic circles (picture monks with designer watches and chatting on cell phones). Those who expect to be spiritually elevated during a visit to Tibet are bound to be disappointed, but for the mere curious, a visit will certainly intrigue.
Next Stop: Xi'an
Philip was still sick, but up for a little sightseeing by the afternoon of Wednesday, October 13th, so we headed to the nearest and least taxing site, Jokhang Temple, conveniently located right around the corner from our hotel. Jokhang Temple was founded during the reign of King Songtsän Gampo (c. 629-650),